For the third time in four seasons, Repsol Honda supernova Marc Marquez claimed the MotoGP world championship. He did it by winning the Japanese Grand Prix while the Bruise Brothers of the factory Yamaha team – Jorge Lorenzo and the legend Valentino Rossi – choked on their own bile, both riders crashing out of a race in which neither could afford the slightest error. This unlikely confluence of events is responsible for, among other things, the very pedestrian championship celebration prior to the podium. Nothing like the Bushido spectacle we watched in 2014.
Notes from Practice and Qualifying
|Line-up changes for those scoring from home
|Repsol Honda: Dani Pedrosa out; Hiroshi Aoyama in. Pedrosa needs to think about retiring before he starts to resemble Quasimodo after a second serious injury suffered here by “The Master of Motegi.” The break, which left his right collarbone in four pieces, was described by the rider’s surgeon as the “least serious” of all of Dani’s collarbone breaks. Right.|
|Ducati Corse: Andrea Iannone out; Hector Barbera in.|
|Avintia: Barbera out; Mike Jones in.|
|Yamaha: Katsuyuki Nakasuga wildcard|
Jorge Lorenzo, Andrea Dovizioso, Marc Marquez and Maverick Vinales were quick on Friday. Bradley Smith and Jack Miller returned from injury, young Jack needing to get some laps in before fighting for the win at Phillip Island next week – in his head. Smith is lapping very slowly on Friday and appears to be saving himself for KTM. Miller starts 14th, with Smith alongside him in the last spot on the fifth row.
Rossi somehow took the pole everyone in the joint expected would belong to Marquez, with #93 second and Lorenzo somehow completing the front row. An international second row formed up on the top Ducati qualifier, Italian Dovizioso, joined by Brit Cal Crutchlow and Spaniard Aleix Espargaro, who whipped his Suzuki hard, pushing teammate Vinales, in seventh by 4/100ths of a second, to the third row and feeling pretty good about it.
If nothing else, Mike Jones, the replacement for Barbera at Avintia, won the battle of “Who Gets to Wear #7?”, beating Hiro Aoyama who, denied his usual number, went with #73 and a long story as to why.
Rossi, Lorenzo and Marquez each have 64 poles across all classes. Rossi’s been at it 21 years, Lorenzo 15 and Marquez nine. And, by the way, 64 is the all-time record, which will get broken a number of times every year for the next decade at least. Is this the Golden Age of motorcycle racing? Possibly.
The 2016 Japanese Grand Prix was, itself, a conventional, low-drama affair. Early on, the Yamahas asserted themselves, as the front group consisted of Lorenzo, Marquz, Rossi and Aleix Espargaro, who, along with his teammate Vinales, discovered how much the Suzuki GSX-RR does love itself some Motegi. Rossi took a couple of swings at Marquez early but couldn’t get anything to stick, while Lorenzo was riding with “bumps and bruises” suffered on Saturday morning that would leave most mortals lying in a hospital somewhere. Marquez went through on Lorenzo into the lead on Lap 4. Rossi crashed on Lap 7. Lorenzo crashed on Lap 20. Championship over. Oh, and Dovizioso claimed second while Vinales took third.
Historians will argue for years weeks as to where this race was actually won or lost. Some will insist it was at Turn 10 on Sunday when Rossi went lowside, unforced, for the third time this season. Some will say it was at Turn 9 on Sunday, where Marquez went through on Lorenzo on Lap 4 and where Lorenzo lost his grits on Lap 20, the moment at which Marquez effectively clinched the title. Some will say it was Turn 2 on Saturday, when Lorenzo crashed heavily in FP3 and was airlifted to the local hospital, only to return in time for FP4. After Lap 4, when Marquez took the lead for good, the only drama concerned whether the 2016 trophy would be awarded to Marquez in Japan or Australia.
Random Thoughts Before The Big Picture
- The pressure on Lorenzo and Rossi, especially, had to be immense while the riders waited for the red lights to go out. Rossi, who suffers notoriously from jetlag, can’t have been feeling great sitting on pole, while Lorenzo had been in a wheelchair with an IV drip barely 28 hours earlier. It was pressure for one and pain for the other that forced the errors. It also extended the Yamaha winless streak to 8.
- Riders at Motegi spend 30% of their time on the brakes. Looks like the fabled braking power of the Yamaha M1 may be overrated, as Tech3’s Pol Espargaro was the top-finishing Yamaha, 19 seconds behind Marquez.
- In the Redding vs. Petrucci cage match going on at Pramac Ducati, Scott Redding exercised his “rope-a-dope” strategy to perfection, staying on teammate Danilo Petrucci’s rear wheel all day and conceding a single point to the Italian. Not sure what the official score is inside the Pramac garage, as Petrucci was penalized by management for his takedown of Redding in Aragon.
- Today’s race attendance was just over 52,000. Back in the late ’70s I was sitting in a friendly nickel-dime-quarter poker game one night and drew three cards inside to a straight flush for a $2.00 pot. Marquez today probably felt at least a little like I did that night long ago, taking the world championship thousands of miles from home in front of a small crowd in the middle of the night.
- What is the Repsol Honda team going to do with all the props they’ve packed away for the Phillip Island championship celebration?
The Big Picture
With three races left, we turn our attention to the MotoGP undercards and the Moto2 title fight. Johann Zarco gave himself some breathing room over challenger Alex Rins by taking second place today while Rins finished out of the points, presumably the result of a crash or a leisurely walkabout in the kitty litter. Zarco’s 21-point cushion with three rounds left make him the odds-on favorite to become the first repeat Moto2 champion since the category came into existence.
The undercards in the premier class:
- Rossi and Lorenzo recorded DNFs; Rossi’s margin over Lorenzo in the battle for second best remains 14.
- Vinales leapt over the injured Pedrosa into fourth place for the season with his 16 points today, to the delight of Team Suzuki.
- Dovizioso’s podium today pushed him past Crutchlow into sixth place. Crutchlow, for his part, rallied from a non-descript start to finish fifth and blamed disruptions in the Earth’s magnetic field for his poor start.
- Tech 3 Yamaha’s Pol Espargaro claimed 10 points today, breaking the tie for eighth place with the idle Iannone.
- Suzuki pilot Aleix Espargaro, on the strength of his formidable fourth place finish today, cut Barbera’s lead in the race for 10th to two points. This despite the fact that Barbera had a shiny new factory Ducati Desmosedici GP16 to crash today, which he took full advantage of on Lap 9.
Round 16 launches this next week at Phillip Island. As such, it kicks off the dreaded Epilogue section of the season, the three races (and three previews) we here at MO need to spice up to maintain your interest and engagement once the title has been decided. (Not that our usual work has all that much to do with motorcycle racing anyway.) Rest assured that we’ve kept our own powder dry and are fully prepared to speculate on things at least remotely related to MotoGP in Australia, Malaysia and Spain.
As Arlo Guthrie admitted in the folk classic “Alice’s Restaurant,” I’m not proud. Or tired.